Sunday, December 29, 2019

A Failure of Imagination

"Nobody really thinks about it until it affects them personally."
A failure of imagination kept the
Apollo 1 crew from reaching the moon.
(I took this pic with a home telescope.
Cool, huh?)

That statement was given by an unhappy Trump voter in Brownsville, TX to a New York Times reporter regarding plans for parts of her retirement community in the River Bend Resort and Golf Club to be wedged in a gap between the US/Mexico border and an actual border wall. Despite living right on the border, she never imagined that the president's oft-touted plan plan to erect a border to keep out immigrants could negatively impact her own personal comfort.

I don't know why, but that simple quote really hit me the wrong way when I read it. I feel that saying "You never truly understand until it affects you personally" would be very accurate, but to never THINK about a major election platform of your preferred candidate until it affects you personally is - as the famous testimony about the Apollo 1 command capsule fire said - "a failure of imagination."

I spend a lot of time every single day thinking about issues that don't affect me personally. But I don't need to have a catastrophe to happen to me or any of my loved ones in order to act to protect people I don't know. Empathy and compassion propel me to advocate and vote to protect others. And, yes, I even vote against things that would financially benefit me and my family if it will help others who don't have enough for basic needs like food and shelter. 

I am blessed to have enough, but that's no excuse for me to close my eyes to the needs of others. If that's not sufficient to sway some voters, it's just common sense for them to use their imaginations to consider an unexpected time when they might not have enough. Today, because of our precarious health system many Americans can have their financial securities totally undone in a moment when a health crisis like a cancer diagnosis or a car crash suddenly disrupts a life.

I don't really know a sure fire way to reach people and increase their empathy, but I know ways to increase my own. I think these these suggestions are helping me and would help others as well...

Newspapers, novels, non-fiction, scientific journals...all of them offer windows to the lives of people who have troubles different from your own. If you want some suggestions, check out my Anti-Poverty Mom's 2019 Gift Picks list which was all made up of books to increase understanding and empathy.

Diversify your Twitter network
I saw a suggestion on social media (sorry I can't find the original post anymore!) that was helpful to me. It was essentially saying that if white people wanted to better understand the experience of African-Americans, that they should try following a handful of black people on Twitter and see how that changes the tone of the feed. But the most valuable part was the suggestion that the white people do so WITHOUT COMMENT. I tried it and found something really startling: it was as if caucasian Twitter followers could not help themselves from butting in with comments like "Well, actually..." and other things that would negate the feelings and observations of non-white tweeters. It made me wonder how much I'd done that to others in my life without realizing it. I think an infusion of lots of different kind of diversity into our personal social media feeds could be a good way to break out of our bubbles and add insight...but are we able to do it without comment? Can we just listen and learn without stirring up trouble?

Talk...REALLY people who are not like you
If you find enough connections to people different from yourself, issues that never touched you before are bound to start affecting you personally. It's startling to realize how many people in the U.S. have been personally touched by gun violence whether it be from mass shootings, suicide, accidental gunfire at home, etc, etc. Maybe this is the hardest one because it's the one that falls outside of natural comfort zones for most people...including me. 

I'd love to hear about other people's suggestions in the comments. Like I said, I don't have all the answers on this one at all. I will leave you with a quote from Senator Cory Booker from a democratic presidential debate. He was talking about needing to take action on gun violence, but I think it applies to a lot of issues. 
“This is a crisis of empathy in our nation. We can’t wait for it to personally affect us. People can’t wait for this hell to be visited upon their communities.” 
- Cory Booker
Booker isn't necessarily my favorite candidate right at the moment, but I do like his ideas about courageous empathy. We all have the power to shape ourselves into more empathetic and thoughtful citizens before we head into the voting booths again.